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The business case for improving workplace health and wellbeing

1. It makes good business sense

Australians are ageing. By 2056, the median age in Australia is expected to be around 44 years of age[1], up from 37 years in 2013[2]. By that time, close to one in four Australians will be over the age of 65. There will be fewer people of working-age, meaning we will need to work longer to offset the reduction in our labour force participation rate[3]. Disability and health issues, including the prevalence of chronic conditions, increase with age.

As the composition of Australia's population changes, so too will it change the make-up of the APS workforce. It will become increasingly important for APS managers and leaders to shift our thinking to:

  • better harness our changing workforce demographics and diversity
  • accommodate new ways of working
  • strengthen our long-term strategic workforce planning, and
  • reshape our perceptions about health, wellbeing and capability at work.

Our employees are one of our greatest assets and we need to look after them.

Australian health statistics

Mental health

Nearly half of the Australian population will experience mental ill health at some stage in their lives. Over a 12 month period:

  • almost one in five Australians will experience a mental illness
  • anxiety disorders will affect 14 per cent of the population, and
  • depression will affect six per cent of the population.[4]


Around four million Australians have disability, over half of whom are of working age working age (15 – 64 years)[5].

Chronic disease

The prevalence of chronic diseases in Australia is increasing due to a range of factors, including the ageing population. In 2007-08, the National Health Survey found that:

  • four per cent of the Australian population had diabetes
  • 10 per cent had asthma
  • 15 per cent had arthritis , and
  • 16 per cent had conditions of the circulatory system[6].

Organisations that focus on employee wellbeing see an overall improvement in employee health. This, in turn, improves productivity, employee engagement and motivation. The World Health Organization describes this as a virtuous circle:

'[T]here is no trade-off between health and productivity at work. A virtuous circle can be established: improved conditions at work will lead to a healthier work force, which will lead to improved productivity, and hence the opportunity to create a still healthier, more productive workplace.' [7]

As well as improving productivity, employee engagement and motivation, positive health and wellbeing practices, cultures and leadership can create financial benefits by reducing:

  • absenteeism
  • workers' compensation costs
  • staff turnover, and
  • time spent managing complex health issues.

Health benefits of work

In general, work is good for people. It:

  • provides economic stability
  • creates valuable social and interpersonal connections
  • improves socio-economic status
  • gives people an opportunity to contribute to and achieve goals, and
  • provides individuals with an identity and role within society[8].

All of these factors contribute to overall physical and psychological health and wellbeing. In addition, most people want the opportunity to work when they are able to do so.

2. It's the law

APS agencies have a duty of care—that is, a moral or legal obligation to ensure the safety or wellbeing of others—when it comes to the safety, health and wellbeing of employees in the course of their employment.

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, your agency must ensure that its 'acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons'[9]. Your agency must provide a safe working environment and monitor employees' health and the conditions of the workplace to prevent physical and mental injury or illness[10]. The Australian Public Service Commissioner's Directions 2013 require that your agency head must put in place measures to ensure that your agency complies with all applicable work health and safety legislation, including the Work Health Safety Act 2011. All APS employees must take proper steps to support these measures, having regard to their duties and responsibilities[11].

To meet its duty of care, in some situations, your agency may need to seek professional medical advice to ensure that an employee is undertaking duties that are medically appropriate. In Australia there is a common law right for an employer to give a reasonable direction to an employee to undergo a medical examination[12]. As with many other public sector jurisdictions, the ability to direct an employee for a medical examination in the APS is provided in legislation, namely the Public Service Regulations 1999.

Under Regulation 9.3(3), your agency head can delegate the power to direct an employee to attend a medical examination to another person.

Direction to attend a medical examination

Without the ability to direct an employee to undergo a health assessment when the need arises, sometimes, it would be difficult for your agency to meet its duty of care, and your agency might then be liable.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010, www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/1370.0~2010~Chapter~Population%20projections%20(3.4)

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013, www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/1CD2B1952AFC5E7ACA257298000F2E76?OpenDocument

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010 www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/1370.0~2010~Chapter~Population%20projections%20(3.4)

[4] Sane Australia, Facts and figures about mental illness, www.sane.org/information/factsheets-podcasts/204-facts-and-figures-about-mental-illness

[5] Australian Network on Disability, Stats and Facts, www.and.org.au/pages/disability-statistics.html

[6] Department of Health, Chronic disease

[7] World Health Organization, citied in Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Health and Productivity

[8] UK Civil Service, Is work good for your health and wellbeing? https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/214326/hwwb-is-work-good-for-you.pdf

[9] Work Health and Safety Act 2011

[10] Work Health and Safety Act 2011

[11] Australian Public Service Commissioner's Directions 2013

[12] Ashurst Australia, Employment Alert, 2013 Go to the Doctor! Directing an employee to attend a medical assessment, www.ashurst.com/doc.aspx?id_Content=9643